How oxymoronic would it be to call someone a Victorian feminist? In this essay, Sam Chan skilfully juxtaposes the transgressive female voices in several of Christina Rossetti’s poems to elucidate the struggle between desire and shame that accompanies the struggle of a poet to rise above her gender’s marginalised state.
There is an old saying in literature that goes, ‘Men write. Women get written about.’ That might have been true for a large number of male poets, but it certainly wasn’t true for Christina Rossetti. A strikingly large number of Rossetti’s poems feature either female speakers or female characters. They give voice to complex emotions, like in The Convent Threshold, or are involved in exchanges played out between women, like in Cousin Kate, Sister Maude, Noble Sisters, and The Lowest Room. And in the surreal atmosphere of Goblin Market, the women exist in a fantasy world where all the men have disappeared and been replaced by rapacious goblins. Why the focus on female voices?
In Christina Rossetti’s time, the vast majority of canonically accepted works of literature were written by men. The idealized female subjects of these poems were often perfect, flawless…and devoid of personality, more fresco than woman. This was the state of affairs that Christina Rossetti was objecting to when she wrote:
‘[These women immortalised by the poets] … have come down to us resplendent with charms, but … scant of attractiveness.
Had such a lady spoken for herself, the portrait left us might have appeared more tender, if less dignified, than any drawn even by a devoted friend.’
Rossetti’s poems are often described as proto, or early stage, feminism because the recurring theme of women ‘speaking for themselves’. Rossetti’s status as a ‘feminist’, though, is complicated. Despite the strong female voices present in her poems, Rossetti often portrays women as being primarily in conflict with other women, and their raised voices are usually to say yes or no to the demands of men. In Noble Sisters, one sister sabotages the other to prevent herself becoming associated with scandal. In The Lowest Room, the speaker’s sense of feminine independence is undermined by her sister’s contented domesticity: ‘her husband her main wealth in all the world’. In poems like Cousin Kate and Sister Maude, indirect sabotage becomes outright competition, specifically for the attention of a man. When men are absent from these exchanges, their implicit presence is still eloquent:
O cousin Kate, my love was true,
Your love was writ in sand:
If he had fooled not me but you,
If you stood where I stand,
He’d not have won me with his love
Nor bought me with his land;
I would have spit into his face
And not have taken his hand.
The man in ‘Cousin Kate’ is inconstant in his affections, but the speaker chooses to blame Kate instead: it’s her love that’s ‘writ in sand’, and her failure to ‘spit into his face’. Rossetti’s poem is a strange paradox: a once-silent female voice is now telling us exactly what she thinks – that the other, silent female is loose, immoral and should be shamed.
Yet Rossetti’s poetry doesn’t seem to emerge from a sense of gendered inferiority: the conflict between women often renders them more vitalistic than the invisible men they fight over. In Maude Clare, Maude Clare descends on the wedding party of her faithless once-love Thomas ‘like a queen’ and upbraids him for his inconstancy. The bride Nell is ‘pale with pride’: Thomas is merely ‘pale with inward strife’. Maude Clare makes clear that Thomas has no stomach to face his spurned lover:
He strove to match her scorn with scorn,
He faltered in his place:
“Lady,” he said, – “Maude Clare,” he said, –
“Maude Clare:” – and hid his face.
If Rossetti saw male writers as too often effacing the voice of women, Maude Clare is a complete inversion: the woman makes her case in full, reducing the man to stuttering silence. The poem’s silencing of the man becomes so complete that it’s his bride-to-be, Nell, that takes up the argument for him. Strangely, Thomas has been so thoroughly emasculated that Nell’s arguments seem to stem more from her desire to oppose Maude Clare than from any positive quality in the groom.
“And what you leave,” said Nell, “I’ll take
And what you spurn, I’ll wear;
For he’s my lord for better and worse,
And him I love, Maude Clare.
Nell’s defiant declarations cast the groom as passive object (‘leave…take / spurn… wear’). Her language is striking both for what it says as well as what it omits. Nell lists no qualities that make the groom worth having. She lists Maude’s qualities instead: ‘though you’re taller…more wise and much more fair’. The marriage is a contest between women, with the groom a convenient proxy. Yet paradoxically, both women address the quivering Thomas as ‘my lord’, and Nell fiercely anticipates her marriage vows (‘for better or worse’).
Women in Rossetti’s poetry exhibit a strange contradiction: brave and strong as they are, their energies are often directed towards the goal of effacement and subordination. Isobel Armstrong explained the contradiction best when she conceptualised ‘gender [as] a primary focus of anxiety’ in Victorian society, that a great deal of the anxiety was deflected onto female sexuality as a dangerous, powerful force, and that the internalisation of this anxiety meant women poets skirted the line between ‘transgressions and boundary’, ‘silence and language’, ‘struggle and limit’.
Read in this way, much of Rossetti’s poetry makes sense as a woman struggling with her feminine sexuality and the conflicting desires of wanting to assert and hide herself. The theme of self-control and self-discipline runs throughout Rossetti’s poetry and her verse; speakers are often caught in the act of waiting or sacrifice, locked into the discipline of abiding by neat, metrical lines broken up by self-imposed caesuras and characterised by sing-song repetition. In Sound Sleep this sense of constraint manifests in a passive conformity with the surroundings:
Some are laughing, some are weeping;
She is sleeping, only sleeping.
Round her rest wild flowers are creeping;
There the wind is heaping, heaping
The long strife at length is striven:
Till her grave-bands shall be riven,
Here the ‘she’ of the poem is subsumed into her surroundings and subsumed into the regular trochaic meter as a single clause among many. The mention of her passive ‘sleeping’ contrasts with the varied ‘some’ engaged in life, the ‘creeping’ flowers and the ‘heaping’ wind, but the linking use of the present participle (where ‘sleeping’ becomes another verb comparable to ‘heaping’, ‘creeping’, ‘weeping’) absorbs her into the vitalistic activity around her. Her passivity is in anticipation of a future hope; the religious anticipation of when ‘grave-bands shall be riven’ in the life after death. Occasionally, passivity becomes a refuge:
I took my heart in my hand
(O my love, O my love),
I said: Let me fall or stand,
Let me live or die,
But this once hear me speak –
(O my love, O my love),
Yet a woman’s words are weak;
You should speak, and not I.
The repeated ‘O my love’ is at once an appeal, a complaint, and a talismanic repetition in the anticipation of a blow. The sense of passive anticipation and of a wilful surrendering of the speaker’s capacity for action, is contained in the line ‘You should speak, and not I’. The words are a self-defence mechanism, an effacement of self in the face of pain.
If men are occasionally invisible from want of character, Rossetti’s women are invisible through striving. Women’s agency often entails either willful silence or in a forceful refusal, as in “No, Thank You John” (‘I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns / Than answer “Yes” to you’). When women are overwhelmed, the chief thing they lose is their capacity to resist, to say no, as in Love from the North:
He made me fast with book and bell
With links of love he makes me stay;
Till now I’ve neither heart nor power
Nor will nor wish to say him nay.
The consequence of a failure to resist a coercive love is entrapment and silencing: to be bound ‘fast’ with ‘links of love’. Most importantly, in abrogating her responsibility to refuse, the speaker loses not just her ‘power…to say him nay’, but her sense of selfhood: she has ‘neither heart…nor will nor wish’ to refuse anymore.
This makes sense of the poems where anger is directed at other women, even as Rossetti tries to give women a voice: scorn is reserved for women who breach the unspoken compact and fail to resist. Cousin Kate is, after all, blamed for failing to refuse the hand of the un-named lord. Laura’s mistake in Goblin Market is in ignoring her own injunction to ‘not look at goblin men’. In Noble Sisters, one sister warns the other she will ‘shame our father’s name’ and attempts to refuse an adulterous lover on her behalf. To fail to say no is to betray a shared code in sisterhood, a kind of solidarity in passive refusal.
Yet the appeal of an apocalyptic romance is difficult to resist, even as it brings about destruction. Love from the North, for instance, reads closer to the language of Gothic romance than cautionary tale. The speaker is spirited away by an irresistible Byronic lover who ‘took me in his strong white arms / he bore me on his horse away… but never asked me yea or nay.’ In Goblin Market, transgressive sex and romance is symbolized through literalized forbidden fruit:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
Rossetti’s language lingers on the sensuous, emphasizing the physicality of the illicit fruit (‘sweeter …stronger’) and Laura’s consuming hunger (‘suck’d and suck’d and suck’d’) even as the poem’s denouement seeks to reject it. Denial is intermixed with, and draws its strength from, the power of the temptations it speaks against.
Perhaps the scorn that surfaces against other women in the poems is not the product of a strict moralism against looseness, but is evidence of a woman struggling with the impossible tension between denial and desire, between moral rectitude and shame. Rossetti gives voice to both instincts: the desire to cast off all restraint, and the attendant female shaming that keeps that from becoming a reality. Where it becomes problematic is when that shame is externalized, and directed against other women as a means of enforcing a status quo: the cottage maid cursing Cousin Kate and Nell dismissing Maude Clare.
Read in that light, Rossetti’s poetry sheds light on the tendency of marginalized communities to turn on each other, as they internalise the values around them and begin to police each other. Think of a freshly-arrived migrant in a foreign country who works hard to assimilate, then turns around and scorns other fresh arrivals for their rustic accents and coarse manners. The arithmetic of this interaction is simple: it’s the act of raising yourself by lowering the people around you. To Rossetti’s credit, whilst she never found herself able to repudiate the values around her, she never fully gave in to simplistic moralizing, perhaps recognising too much of her own struggles in the problems of others. Rossetti’s poetry poses several questions for us: what kind of judgements are we making today that, rather than reflect our best values, reflect our own desire to rise above our insecurities? And who are we holding down to get there?
SAMUEL CHAN always thought he’d be a lawyer when he grew up, but realised halfway through the first semester of law school that his first love was literature. He went on to study it in the UK and currently teaches in a secondary school in Singapore. These days he spends his time tunneling an escape route under the staff room and lamenting the closure of the one good canteen stall.
Photo credit: Chloe Lim
Armstrong, I. (1996) Christina Rossetti: Diary of a Feminist Reading. In: T. Cosslett (ed.), Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader. London: Longman.
 Monna Innominata, preface
 The Lowest Room, line 238
 Cousin Kate, lines 33 – 40
 Maude Clare, line 4
 ibid. lines 13 – 14
 ibid., lines 29 – 32
 ibid., lines 41 – 44
 ibid., lines 45 – 46
 Victorian Poetry, Isobel Armstrong, p 7
 Armstrong, p 344
 Sound Sleep, lines 1 – 4 and lines 19 – 20
 Twice, lines 1 – 8
 “No, Thank You John”, lines 19 -20
 Love from the North, lines 29 – 32
 Goblin Market, line 42
 Noble Sisters, line 59
 Love from the North, lines 25 – 28
 Goblin Market, lines 129 – 135